Moulin Rouge (1928)
Director / Screenplay: E. A. Dupont / Editing: Harry Chandlee / DP: Werner Brandes / Music: Joseph Littau
Cast: Olga Chekhova / Eve Gray / Jean Bradin / Georges Tréville / Marcel Vibert / Blanche Bernis / Ray Milland
The Show Must Go On…
German Cinema’s rise to prominence in the silent-era, was driven by the efforts of a clutch of visionary Directors, looking to push the medium in new artistic directions beyond the crude, narratively-stunted fare routinely produced in Hollywood. Figures such as Murnau, Lang and others may have won the headlines (and the plum contracts) but, following in their wake, were a number of other emergent talents on the cusp of their own breakthroughs: Ewald André Dupont was one of those ‘nearly men’.
E. A. Dupont started as a film journalist in Berlin, before switching to write & edit original screenplays. In 1917, he got his first break as a Director and over the next eight years and a string of German features, he developed his own interpretation of ‘Expressionism’: a form of cinema, in which attention is paid to a character’s emotional state, over the reality of a given situation.
In the silent era, performers had nothing to offer but their ability to project emotion. However, whereas a Hollywood production would seldom offer anything deeper than broad comedy or, at best, melodrama, their German contemporaries were tackling ‘serious’ drama. Step-by-step, German Directors perfected their own ‘grammar of film’, accumulating a deep, shared knowledge of camera moves and tricks that all contributed in diverse ways to the exploration & propulsion of their emerging art.
For Dupont, his critical breakthrough came with the 1925 picture Varieté; a study of emotions exchanged between a quartet of trapeze artists. Such was Varieté’s success, that a Hollywood contract beckoned (with Universal), but Dupont wouldn’t be the first – or last – European Director to find Hollywood’s movie culture too restrictive and he left after making just one picture. Instead of returning to Germany, Dupont ended-up at British International Pictures (‘BIP’); a short-lived outfit destined to be influential in the later founding of Rank Films.
BIP’s pitch, lay in assembling top-tier European talent for pictures tailored to the Home & Commonwealth markets and, with Dupont’s reputation still glowing from Varieté, it seemed – for a while, at least – that he might flourish at their Elstree studio. In the event, Moulin Rouge would be the first of just two pictures Dupont would make for BIP, though it’s unclear why he moved-on.
Dupont would also write Moulin Rouge, taking as his theme, that evergreen dramatic staple: the eternal, doomed ‘love-triangle’. His principle character, is a dancer at Paris’ famous ‘Moulin Rouge’ variety theatre: a smart choice of location. Varieté had demonstrated Dupont’s capacity to use lighting as a way of creating a nebulous ‘stage’ on which actors could be photographed – ‘fixed’ – in novel (and often stark) compositions, to better telegraph their emotional (i.e. ‘Expressive’) states, so shifting from a circus to a theatre would solve more logistical issues than present.
By opting for the Moulin Rouge as a location, I think Dupont was settled on two extra points. First, that the film would contain lengthy sequences featuring snippets of its show, thus allowing him to return to capturing ‘performance’ once again. Second, that the Moulin Rouge theatre resonated with an entire generation of young men, who’d visited the place whilst on leave from their duties in France, during WW1. It seems to this writer, that no ‘weekend pass’ in Paris would be complete, without a visit to ‘the Windmill’… If I’m right, then Dupont’s decision can be seen as astute, if nothing else. He was banking on their being a guaranteed audience, familiar with the name, from the off…
For his lead – playing Parysia, the glamorous star of the show – Dupont cast Olga Tschechowa (‘Chekhova’ in English). Chekhova was to lead an amazingly diverse life. A Russian émigré who’d escaped Revolutionary turmoil in 1917, a convenient marriage led Chekhova to Germany and a new career acting in silent film; she made over forty pictures during the Twenties. With the rise of Nazism in Germany, Chekhova found herself courted professionally by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister for Propaganda and personally, by Head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göering. Indeed, Goebbels bestowed upon Chekhova the honorary title ‘State Actress of the Third Reich’, thus enhancing her chances of being cast in officially-sanctioned films of the period and paving the way for greater privileges during the hard years of the war-to-come. Despite being suspected by the SS as a Soviet spy, Chekhova would survive the war and ended-up running her own film production company.
The film itself begins at a slow pace, with an extended montage showing the busy nightlife of ‘the City of Lights’. Then we’re in a bar. A noisy, smoky, busy bar, where an average Joe sits on a bench between a pair of ‘good-time gals’. He finds one more attractive than the other and sidles closer. When she leaves (whether to evade or lure him on, we’re unsure), our man duly follows: only to be pursued in-turn, by a spivvy accomplice who’s been watching the set-up play-out. At first, I took the spiv to be the girl’s pimp, but he’s revealed to be doing something far worse: he’s selling soft-core postcards… This Paris, then, is full of sharks & ne’er-do-wells. No-one can be trusted. No-one turns-out to be who they pretend to be…
On then to the Moulin Rouge, where we see snatches of the variety acts in the show. Dupont actually filmed these sequences at the Lido de Paris, I’m guessing on account of its larger auditorium & stage, allowing more freedom in his camera placement & lighting set-ups. All human life is here: from the drilled chorus lines to a scene from The Mikado, there seems to be something for everyone in the rapt audience. Lest we forget, we are watching the last gasp of the classic music-hall before radio – then TV – swept it all away. What’s more, we’re in Paris. Dupont manages to capture the glamour of show-business in these scenes and little of its seediness. He delights in sharing his stage with a few vignettes of life out in the audience; his roving camera lingers on a soldier who takes a lit cigarette into his mouth and still blows smoke. Then there’s the wife, who notices that her husband is fascinated more by the naked back of the lady sat alongside, than he is by the show. As we saw in the opening, everyone’s playing-out roles. ‘All the world’s a stage’ as someone once said (bonus points awarded if you can spot a very young Ray Milland amongst the crowd)…
A word here, for Dupont’s wide shots of the auditorium, with its miasma of tobacco-smoke, cut-through by spot-lights and the variety of camera vantage-points he finds alongside DP Werner Brandes. We see the audience from a performer’s POV, then the players themselves, from the POV of someone up in the scene-rigging. This is Dupont both letting-in the audience out there in the theatre AND viewers of the film. He’s blurring the boundaries between art and ‘real life’; between what we see on-stage and what those involved in the show actually get to witness…
Enter: Parysia, the headline act, who totters down a staircase on-stage, under the weight of an impressive head-dress, whilst serenaded by phalanxes of dancers. We cut to a young couple – latecomers – who are finding their seats in a private box right by the stage. The girl turns to her partner, claiming Parysia is actually her mother… ‘Is she not wonderfully beautiful?’ reads the inter-titles. ‘I have not seen her myself for so long, that I hardly recognise her.’ That’s quite the revelation…
The show’s interval brings a mass exodus to the theatre bar, of both patrons and their smoke haze; at times, they seem almost umbilically-linked. For Parysia, it means a quick-change, with what we presume to be her daughter’s gift of a flower-basket derided & ignored: ‘Who are those tasteless flowers from?’ she asks her dresser. As a result, the show’s second half proceeds with Parysia oblivious to the young couple, despite their proximity.
Afterwards, Parysia’s in her dressing room and being entertained by The Marquis (Marcel Vibert); a twirly-moustachioed admirer and someone who, we’re led to believe, is probably Parysia’s lover. It’s left to the Marquis to find the flowers and read the enclosed note, which prompts Parysia to snatch it back, rebuking him for his nosiness. She then reads it, as do we: her daughter, Margaret has now returned from three years away at-school and has become engaged! After her face registers a full-spectrum of emotions, Parysia tells her dresser: ‘A different dress, Louise. Something higher at the neck and longer at the knee! Quickly!’
Parysia meets her daughter – Margaret – outside the Stage Door. She’s portrayed in the film as an emotionally naïve girl by British silent star Eve Gray, who introduces her fiancé – André – to her mother. He’s played by then-popular French silent star Jean Brodin, as an untrustworthy figure. His flaws have already been elegantly shown. First, when he discreetly purchased a programme, boasting ‘the latest photographs of Parysia’ and second, in his admission to Margaret that, after her, ‘Parysia is the most attractive woman I’ve ever seen’.
Later, at a club – and at Margaret’s insistence – she pushes mother & fiancé together for a friendly kiss, but André’s about to convert a friendly peck-on-the-cheek to a potential lip-smacker, that’s only avoided when Parysia swerves aside. Luckily, Margaret misses this moment and now urges her mother to dance with André: a request Parysia firmly denies, claiming she ‘has enough dancing on the stage’.
That night, characters reveal themselves; rather, their deep truths are revealed. Margaret tells her mother, that André ‘truly’ loves her; a naïveté that Parysia sees-through, but can’t bring herself to correct. Later, we see any joy Parysia felt on being reunited with Margaret, clouded by a newfound despair for her child, as she sits alone in the gloom, applying night-cream to her face. And André? Back at his luxury apartment, he can’t sleep, preferring to gawp at the photos in the programme and fantasise about What Might Be… In his way, then, André is revealed to be as naïve as his fiancée. Where she believes in love absolute, at the expense of any other emotion, André proves unable to commit to one relationship. He’s not ready, preferring the chase after forbidden fruits…
So. Parysia will either seek to break-off her daughter’s engagement, thus protect Margaret from future emotional strain OR have her married-off and living away once more, thus protecting herself. Dupont opts to write the second option but there’s a problem: André’s father objects to his son marrying the daughter of an actress… Undeterred, Parysia visits him. The father initially refuses to relent, leaving Parysia to return late to Moulin Rouge, where we see her quick-change into her costume, all the while masking her tears.
The uncertainty lasts until the following day. Parysia receives Margaret & André in her drawing room and is on the verge of telling them how resolute André’s father was in his objection, when her maid interrupts, bearing a letter: he agrees after all: and no-one appears happier than Parysia, or more aggrieved than André, on-realising what this means.
Parysia compounds matters by suggesting a quick wedding ‘in two weeks’.…
While mother and daughter then enjoy themselves at a fashion salon, selecting items for Margaret’s trousseau, Dupont cuts-back to André, who’s struggling to write a confessional note to his father. More than once, he writes-out the words, only to tear-up the notepaper. The sequence ends, with a shot of Margaret wearing some kind of leotard & ra-ra skirt combo and asking Parysia ‘Will André like me in this?’; her question answered abruptly, by switching to a shot of André collapsing onto his bed, sobbing bitterly.
Things come to a head when, at dinner, Margaret asks André to kiss her. After a little persuasion he complies, but Dupont undercuts this by showing him imagining to kiss Parysia instead… His unexpected ardour, surprises Margaret (‘André! You never kissed me like that before!) but she’s too drunk either to pay it much attention or to see how conflicted André then appears.
Not that André’s drunk. On the contrary: he’s all too sober. He concocts a plan to put things right and… Well, things don’t exactly work-out as intended. Along the way, Dupont will give us a couple more of these cross-cutting scenes; the idea being, that each contrasts with the other, to enrich and deepen the respective effect. From the VOP of an Expressionistic film-maker, it gives Dupont opportunity to explore emotional extremes. For example, watching Parysia’s last major on-stage appearance in which, barely-conscious, she goes-through-the-motions, is to be convinced we really ARE watching a tortured soul. Dupont doesn’t flinch here. His camera lingers like a bystander, as we see her roused with smelling-salts and propelled stage-wards. Yet all the while, his camera is cutting-back to a hospital’s operating theatre, where Margaret is close-to-death; two theatres, two dalliances with oblivion; the effect is enhanced even more, by cutting the soundtrack completely for scenes at the hospital. As a result, we go from the crazed mayhem of Parysia’s show-stopper to total silence then back again; credit to Dupont and his editor Harry Chandlee, for leaving us feeling as disoriented as Parysia.
Viewed with the perspective of time, this ninety-year old film is not without its flaws. The basic plot is dangerously thin, being the stuff of a racy novella rather than a two-hour drama. It’s lumbered with an opening montage that’s too long and an initial sequence (in the bar) that’s neither referred or returned-to for the rest of the picture. It’s as if Dupont shot a self-contained short-film and chose not to separate it from his main feature, but leave it as a ‘warm-up’, perhaps catering for cinema patrons late to the showing.
His characters are also paper-thin and raise more questions than they answer, e.g.: why did Margaret wait so long before telling Andre – her fiancé, remember – that Parysia was her mother? What were the circumstances of Margaret’s upbringing? Why did Parysia not know that she’d left school: were they so estranged? Yet, had the answers come, Dupont might not have had this scenario and this picture.
It’s encouraging however, that I’m curious enough to be asking such questions in the first place! It means that, at some level, the film worked for me. Its central plot & theme remain novel: Boy meets Girl. Boy meet’s Girl’s Mum. Boy falls in-love with Girl’s Mum. Boy and Girl endure a near-fatal accident that leads Boy back to loving Girl in an act of penance and/or redemption…
These topics are forbidden fruits even today. In the late Twenties, public morals were slightly more relaxed than we might imagine. The Great War had loosened the strings of a whole generation of young people, keen to ‘enjoy themselves’, whether that was dancing to Jazz, wearing a new wave of revealing fashions or just living a less-restricted life than their Victorian parents. For Dupont, a film-maker keen to establish his credentials as the equal of his contemporaries, I consider his choice of material to be in-keeping with the prevailing mood. Boundaries were being erased, especially in German cinema during the years of the inter-war Weimar Republic. As the wider country struggled to re-start its moribund economy, Berlin’s arts scene flourished, in a decadent bubble it would struggle to shake-off once the Nazis came to power. Some things are harder to forget, than others…
Above all, though, the highlight of the film for me, were the naturalistic performances of the major players. Understated, almost to the point of ‘not acting’ at times, Dupont encourages his cast to swoon, sigh and gurn for the camera only when needed, in contrast to many silent-era Directors who saw exaggeration as their sole recourse in conveying drama. In Moulin Rouge, when a character feels joy or sorrow, we feel it too; it matters not that Dupont’s intercuts, tight close-ups and the occasional, brave camera-move are all manipulating our responses. His intentions are as pure as his use of technique, yet as an audience we’re along for the ride because we recognise ourselves on-screen, not because we harbour compromising thoughts about our in-laws, but because we’re all too human.
Moulin Rouge was a commercial success. It allowed Dupont to make a second feature in the UK – Piccadilly (1928) – but from there, it was on to French Cinema and a maudlin take on the Titanic disaster – Atlantic (1930). This was followed by a second spell in the USA, but Dupont was once again unable to find his feet as a German Director in Hollywood and he drifted back to writing and Directing the occasional B-picture; forever destined to remain a ‘nearly man’.
I’ll conclude with this: the film’s BFI-funded restoration. That Moulin Rouge is an Important Film, I’ll not contend. It’s an example of how British Cinema of the era, embraced trends then-prevailing in Europe; enriching and increasing its own diversity in the process. You might say, that being open to new ideas is something the UK does particularly well: even today, our ‘melting pot’ culture thrives still.
However, though Moulin Rouge might be Important for what it represents, I can’t say that it’s much cop as a film… While Dupont excels at conveying narrative within self-imposed constraints, what narrative he has to share is, as I’ve already said, lamentably thin and lumbered with an irrelevant prologue.
Oh, and don’t be confused by the title. IMDb lists several pictures sharing the title and the plot of each one appears different!
André: ‘My father has old-fashioned ideas.’
Parysia: ‘And I am one of those ideas?’
Moulin Rouge (1928) Triple Word / Score: AMBITIOUS / UNSUBTLE / THIN / SIX
NOTES ON THE RESTORATION:
The original British print of the film couldn’t be found for this BFI restoration, so a Danish-language version was sourced. Along with a fresh HD remastering, new English-language inter-titles were created to replace those in Danish. The film also features a few inserted close-ups of hand-written letters (again in Danish), but a rare English-language print was subsequently located, with these sequences used instead; this second print was of noticeably poor quality and differences can be seen when these letters appear.
Although originally released in 1928 as a silent film, the advent of soundtracked film around that time, led to a new score being recorded and added to a shortened 1929 reissue. However, due to complications, the BFI was unable to find enough useable sound for this re-release to cover the entire film. In the event, just three minutes or so of ‘clean’ music remain, so project engineers took care inserting what they had, wherever they could, treading a fine-line between repetition & impact. I’d say it’s largely successful – even the odd spot-effects that’ve been added to bulk-out proceedings, feel ‘of a piece’ with one noticeable exception: the steam train in the penultimate scene, sounds like air being released from a tyre valve…